Top Drift:</br> The New Generation Of Gearheads
Just Drift

I was recently at a dinner with many automotive journalists. We were all exhausted from a long press drive and eagerly awaiting some authentic Spanish tapas to arrive at the tables. Sitting across from me was a gentleman with pure white hair who has been doing my job for longer than I have even existed on this earth. As we injested unhealthy amounts of ham, we started to talk about cars. I mean, what else do automotive journalists talk about, right? I showed him pictures of my 1970 240Z and he was floored. He had no idea that youngins like me still modified cars.


Maybe he thought that his generation of car enthusiasts were the last of their kind, and they are only getting older.


Maybe he thought that kids these days just like putting fancy wheels on their cars, but they don’t actually like to thrash them and take them to redline over and over again.


Little did he know, car culture is alive and well with the younger crowd – something most evident in North America’s grassroots drift scene.


I’ve been shooting the Just Drift pro-am feeder series (also known as Top Drift) since 2006.


So in keeping with tradition, a couple of weeks ago I decided to check out the season opener at Willow Springs International Raceway.


It’s the largest amateur drift series in North America – maybe the world.


In attendance was a packed field of more than 70 drivers who came from all over the country.


There is nothing like going to amateur drift events. I love the grittiness of it; the cars are beat up and they barely run. To me, that’s half the beauty of it.


You know you are doing something right when you need a hacksaw sitting within arms reach at all times.


And it’s not about how your car looks. Yeah, it’s fine and dandy to have a nice body kit, but what is the point if you can’t drive?


With open practice events running all year long and plenty of instructors on-hand to give you tips, Just Drift is the perfect place to practice your drifting.


And it really doesn’t matter how your car looks, as long as you can pitch it sideways.

Going pro

The amateur drift scene has evolved quite a bit over the years.


When I started following it, drivers like Hiro Sumida and Justin Pawlak were competing in Top Drift. One of the first questions I ever asked Justin was if he had any sponsors.


He responded with, “No, but I’m looking!” Now he’s a Formula Drift veteran and he drives sideways for a living. How cool is that?


Just Drift has always had the support of the community including legends like Taka Aono. Right from the very beginning, if you didn’t find Taka instructing, you’d find him judging.


So, with the generation that I followed all grown up – some of them going pro and some of them disappearing from the scene altogether – who is driving now?


When I started covering the scene, some of these drivers were just eight years old and watching from the sidelines. Now they are competing and building cars of their own.


There are those who do it for fun and try to drift the impossible – like Kenny Chieu in his Toyota MR-S.


And there are those who plan on following in Justin Pawlak’s footsteps, like Dan Burkett in this very tastefully modified FC RX-7.


Yo, I heard you like drifting, so I put a 1/64th scale drift track on your dash, so you can drift while you drift. It even comes with little cones and sandbags. So awesome.


Dan wants to turn pro, and he is hoping to earn his Formula Drift Pro 2 license this year. At Top Drift he was definitely one of the most fun to watch.

Fun for all

Aside from those who are dreaming of Formula Drift glory, most of the drivers just want to have a little fun.


This purpose-built Datsun 260Z threw me for a spin. You rarely see old school Z-cars used for drifting.


Sure, it was a bit of a budget build, but the owner had put all his money into what was important.


The L26 motor was largely left alone. There’s nothing like the sound of an uncorked inline six, especially when the exhaust is practically straight through.


I’d much rather see these cars out on the drift track than in the junkyard, so I really have to hand it to the owner for being so gutsy. I can tell you guys that I tried drifting my 240Z, and it was not easy at all. There is barely enough steering angle and the lack of power steering sucks.


While the owner was working pretty hard to hold a drift, he did manage to pitch it sideways for a few runs. Not bad for a 40-year old car.


So what about the cars that were used way back when? What happened to the FC RX-7 that Justin Pawlak was driving? Well that car got stolen. However, around the same time Forest Wang was trying to earn his Formula Drift license.


It’s hard to believe, but after almost ten years, the very same S13.4 is still ripping up the very same track, albeit now driven by Alex Heilbrunn.


Alex ended up winning the event, and I don’t think anyone doubted his driving skill. Even though it was his first time competing in Just Drift, he is a Falken Tire-sponsored driver back in his native homeland of Peru.


It wasn’t an easy win though, he had to get through local driver Daniel Giraldo in his turbocharged 4A-G Corolla who put up a good fight.


It’s amazing, but with only 200hp the little Toyota still holds its own up against the bigger displacement turbo guys as well as the V8 swapped cars.


After three ‘One more time’ calls from the judges, Alex came out on top, but Daniel secured the final podium spot.


There are just a select few drivers who have been around Just Drift since the very beginning, one of which is Mickie Frial.


I remember watching him drift with style back when I first encountered the sport, and it seems nothing has changed. His car is looks perfect every time I see it.


Don’t think for a second that Mickie does not push it when it comes time for competition either. He put it hard into the wall, but I know it will be rebuilt and looking spick and span again in time for Top Drift Round 2.

Cheap thrills

Drifting is really a very cheap way to get into motorsports. It just takes time and dedication.


You don’t really need a fancy car; a beater with a few mods here and there will do.


The drivers’ personal style really shows through the way they build and maintain their cars. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour it will drift back in time.


S-chassis dashboards are notorious for cracking, but I love what builder Joe Tardiff did to cover all that up.


The outside of the car is interesting as well. Joe is part of a drift group named Team Burn the Most, which I assume is a reference to the destruction of tires.


Some builds remind me of what I’ve seen at Gatebil in the past few years. Big motor in a chassis that’s falling apart and no interior in sight.


And just like at Gatebil, these cars are thrashed to their absolute limits – wall taps on every lap if that’s what it takes.


Just check out this LS-powered drift truck of sorts built by Spike Chen. It may not be much of a looker, but it makes enough smoke to set off fire alarms for miles.


Qualifying can be pretty hectic. Narrowing a field of 70 drivers down to just 16 is no easy task. So, just making it into Top 16 was a win in itself.


In fact, I remember back in the early years they used to only have a Top 8 competition since there were not enough drivers for a Top 16.


Now you actually have to have some real driving skill to see the light of tandem.


The final battle took place as the sun was going down. It was the franken-drift car, versus the old school S-chassis.


Your top three finishers for Top Drift Round: Alex Heilbrunn, Spike Chen, and Daniel Giraldo.


A podium just stings so good! I’ve always wondered if the winners are on edge driving back home, just in case they get pulled over. “Sir, have you been drinking?” ‘Errrrr…. no?’


Speedhunters, go out and support your local drift scene – you will be surprised at just how much fun you can have. The next time I am sitting across the table from a bunch of seasoned automotive journalists I am going to make sure I have pictures of some of the greatest amateur drifters in the world to show them. I will tell them that this is the next generation of gearheads. And that yes, they do modify their own cars…

Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto



Comments are closed.


by Oldest
by Best by Newest by Oldest

wheatgod  these people don't care what looks 'cool' or not, they love drifting more than having a nice looking car. If you really love cars and moreover driving them, you don't care what it looks like, you care how it performs and the thrill of wall scrubs at 100mph or tandem drifting with your best buds. That's what it's all about mate, just a good time.


wheatgod Your cage of a mind makes me so happy I can look out the window in the morning and enjoy my day rather than feel depressed about things I have no control over.


dude you must have such a tiny dick




wheatgod SamBilous  lol, you mean like a CrazyCart?


ImraanGallo  Thanks for the support as always and thanks for supporting your local drift scene.


How do you know? Do you have a time machine? Can you predict the future?
Stop being a troll, if you don't like it, then don't read the articles and don't post comments. Stop being a negative Nancy.
Btw you can buy reproduction bodies for quite a few of the older classic cars currently so who is to say that some jdm legends won't make it into the catalogues in the future.


Larry, so you have a Datsun 240Z as well I see.  Since you love cars, and love photography, I thought you might be interested in my extremely unique drift build:
Also, I do a little photography myself:


wheatgod  "Stop liking what I don't like!"


I like this


wheatgod SamBilous
..... each to their own. Jeeze Larry your make my car look awesome in some pictures but this time its a wreck!! :D (240sx truck)

Some build a car for looks, for the stance status, cool factor, girls...  other build it for the passion of drifting.
For someone who drives a street car or drift for fun, its easy to keep a car clean.
For me.... its WAS impossible to keep my car looking nice. When i started 3 years ago, I was horrible at driving. I still am but improving daily.  I wanted a car that i can improve and grow with. If i crash it in competition or just having fun... no big deal. I feel for me, I have to exceed the limits to find the limit.
The car was mint when i got it and i did the body kit. 2 years of competition and its all gone now :)  all the body "upgrades" or "down grades" as some would see it is out of pure necessity.
Rear end got tubed cause I kept pushing hard in competition... hit/ tapped/ the k rail too many times.
Front end got tubed.... well just cause i wanted to learn the experience of doing it.
Chopped off the roof.... thought it would be fun to have a trucked out 240sx. Before i did mine, i never saw one in person. Being a coupe it was more work but I used what i had.
This car is my 'Whatever comes to mind" car..... so whatever i think of no matter how ridiculous.... i go do it! Simple as that. Its a learning tool for me in terms of fabrication and building a car. Im slaying my fear of the unknown with every upgrade, modification I take part in. Tube a front end.... i didn't know how it was done....rather than paying someone and depriving myself the ability to learn and improve,  i just went and did it. Now i know and its a piece of cake.
Im tired at this point to go buy a new bumper every time i tap the krail with the back end of my car. No more fiber glass side skits and front fenders since they blow up and blow off.
I feel.... for this 240sx truck of mine, its whats is at the HEART that matters. Not having to worry about the car looking nice allows me to push harder and get closer to all the clipping points. If i had to worry about my body kit , paint.... blah blah blah blah, then i would not be concentrating on driving.
I do get a very little bit of satisfaction knowing that my car given the way it looks, gets me on podium every time. Its not pretty by standers of drifting but its beautiful to me. 
I want beauty in my lines on track.

At this point in my driving, its Function with out forum and i don't deserve a good looking drift car as my skill level is far from consistent and on part with my expectations. 
When I do go to FD next year, the car I will be running will be a combination of function hidden under form and that is only possible at expense and sacrifices of this car to give me so much seat time.
When I deserve a good looking drift car and more importantly when I feel that I can drive and not damage it... i will have one :D
Plenty of people have great looking competition drift cars.... at this time its not for me. I haven't had enough of tight clips, wall grinds and doors to doors.


To be honest what would be the point of keeping cars like these around if you can't enjoy them? And there's no need to try to argue that because there really is only so much enjoyment you can achieve by looking at a car, even if you did turn the wrenches on it.
These vehicles will make much better memories in pictures and videos and such of being beaten on on a track than they ever would as a garage queen relic twenty years down the road

Pete the perfect pilot

How bout a bit of detail on the cars, however brief, would be welcome. Especially keen on the rxs, great to see them running strong


wheatgod SamBilous  Drifters dont have the option to care about how their car looks because they will get at least dent or scratch during the next drift day and also chill on the limited number issue its not that big of a deal there are very few drifters and we dont buy a new car every time we slap a wall; We rebuild and push on because most drifters know how to fix a car.
Total amount of vehicles produced:
Nissan 240sx 251,410
Toyota supra  about 80,000


"no interior in site," that interior looks like the inside of C3P0. But hey, it's a race car, so all business.


Does anyone know what that digital dash setup thingy is in the picture with the BTTF joke? That is probably one of the coolest dashboard setups ever!


Michael Atwell  Pretty sure its an older Dakota Digital dash unit.


What car is that in the first picture on the fourth chapter? It's a Toyota Crown or what? I wonder what gearbox is using....


FCs, really good.


SpikeDrift You don't have to justify anything. You probably are running out of room in your house for all the trophies that you win at every event.


Haha thanks Larry. I been lucky so far. Ill do better in the future :D

Chris 'Haffy' Hafner

Any action shots of that MR-S larry? That'll be sick! I remember a NSX drifter about 5 years ago in a mag from japan, so mid-mounted drifters are around. Anybody know of any others?


there is one downside to drifting, its usually the end of many sought after cars that are already considered modern classics.


Chris 'Haffy' Hafner  Akutsu-san's famous red and black Advan NSX that drifts in MSC Challenge.. This car is one of my most favourite, I like very much :)


Any chance speedhunters is gonna do a up close look at the turbo ae86 in this article.  Would love to see it!


greenroadster It's an MX73 Cressida, probably with a 7MGTE or 1JZGTE Supra motor and gearbox


Huh! They make for good wallpapers!